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How a day for truth and reconciliation inspired these Indigenous artists

How a day for truth and reconciliation inspired these Indigenous artists

CBC Saskatchewan reached out to Indigenous artists across the province to commission original works for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Thursday — asking them to create something based on whatever the day inspired in them.

The day, which is being marked as a federal statutory holiday for the first time this year, is intended to recognize the painful legacy and ongoing impacts of the residential school system, and to honour survivors and the children who died while attending the schools.

Here is what the artists created, and what the pieces mean to them in their own words.

The responses have been edited for length and clarity.  

Just Stick Feathers On It by John Brady McDonald

Christopher Lake, Sask.

John Brady McDonald’s Just Stick Feathers On It painting is nearly two metres tall and one metre wide. The background is made up of colourful splotches of colours resembling, in his own words, a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ with three stylistic eagle feathers over top. (John Brady McDonald)

“Being an Indigenous person, you often get invited to various committees, etc., and one of the committees was wanting to do something towards recognizing truth and reconciliation … and there was somebody at the table who had brought an idea that really had nothing to do with reconciliation, it had nothing to do with Indigenous people whatsoever.… And when I pointed that out … their response was, ‘Oh, just stick some feathers on it.’ “

McDonald, who lives in Christopher Lake, Sask., says he doesn’t ‘want to make it sound like nothing good has come out of the reconciliation process, which is not true.’ That it is being spoken about, he says, ‘is a positive thing in itself, and the fact that we’re being given voice to share what happened to us, and for the most part we do have allies who are listening.’ (Kymber Rae Photography )

“I’m a residential school survivor. I grew up in the Prince Albert Indian Residential. I was there from 1984 to 1989. I recently said that my generation is often the one that’s kind of forgotten when it comes to residential school survivors because when they talk about reconciliation and the day, they’re always showing black and white photographs from the ’50s and ’60s.”

“My children and my sister’s children are the first generation in four to have never known the inside of a residential school, and for me, when we’re gone, when my generation’s gone, that first-hand connection is gone. That being said, we’ve got intergenerational survivors who are dealing with the pain and trauma of what their parents and grandparents went through.”

McDonald is influenced by the Indian Group of Seven’s woodland style of painting, as well as ‘lowbrow art,’ with its graffiti vibe. (John Brady McDonald)

“A lot of the reconciliation we have is akin to a kid apologizing for something: ‘OK, I’m sorry. Can I go now?’ That type of feeling. So for me to honestly reconcile … is to acknowledge truly — not just in front of the cameras, not just to appease people, not to check off a PR box — but to honestly say ‘Hey, this happened. This is what we did. This was our role in it. We perpetuated it and we continue to.’ And I think that’s the key … the powers that be continue to benefit from what happened then.”

“Somebody asked me one time, ‘How long do Canadians have to keep apologizing?’ My response was, ‘When the things they’re apologizing for stop happening.'”

Erasure is Futile by Tim Moore

Swift Current, Sask.

The erasers that make up Erasure is Futile resemble a pile of bison bones, says Moore, and are stamped with watermarks pulled from Métis scrip. (Matt Howard/CBC)

“It deals specifically with the erasure — erasure of culture, erasure of identity, erasure of land and privilege.”

WATCH | Tim Moore explains how his family’s history influenced his sculpture:

Métis artist explains why erasers have become a theme in his work

Tim Moore from Swift Current, Sask., created a sculpture for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation called Erasure is Futile, about the erasure of Métis culture and identity. 2:42

“My family has experienced this erasure that this work is about. My grandfather was essentially kidnapped, taken to residential school at about the age of seven, where he was raised. He never did see his family ever again. My family has also received scrip [documents issued to Métis people by the Canadian government redeemable for land or money, but which proved difficult for them to actually benefit from] that we had to relinquish due to, I guess, the time and the distance it would have taken for us to actually acquire these lands. So, there was a lot of disconnect on my father’s side of the family. And it’s taken a long time for us to piece together exactly what happened during that time period and in our family.”

Moore is a Métis artist living in Swift Current, about 225 kilometres west of Regina. (Matt Howard/CBC)

“We were always proud people and it took a lot of time to kind of realize that there was no, so to speak, shame in being who we are. And being raised in a society where there is that kind of animosity toward you, you often will feel that societal pressure to hide your Indigenous aspect of your family.”

Moore uses his fingerprints in his art from time to time to mark it with his identity. (Matt Howard/CBC)

“The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I believe, is a good idea. I understand it may not be the most popular idea at the moment, but I think for me it’s a way to keep truth and reconciliation in the public consciousness going forward.”

“It seems a very broad and tall order, but I believe that until Indigenous people can really see differences in their day-to-day lives, I think we will continue to be striving for the ideals of what this truth and reconciliation is trying to establish.”

They Tried to Bury Us but Little Did They Know We Were the Seeds by Donna The Strange

La Ronge, Sask.

Donna The Strange’s painting They Tried to Bury Us but Little Did They Know We Were the Seeds was inspired by the recent discovery of potential remains at residential school sites across Canada. The blossoming flowers represent children who may have been found at the sites. (Donna The Strange)

“It’s about residential schools: how they tried to wipe out our culture and our people and little did they know that they didn’t succeed and that we came out even stronger and better and united.”

The flowers in the painting are rooted in orange soil — a colour associated with Sept. 30. It’s meant to indicate strength and hope. (Donna The Strange)

“At birth, I was adopted out to a Caucasian family in La Ronge. That’s how I ended up there. I was born in Fishing Lake in Wadena [365 kilometres away] and I knew nothing about my culture or my birth family until I became an adult. And when I found my birth mother, I learnt that she was a residential school survivor in the Lebret residential school, which is known as one of the worst ones in Saskatchewan.”

“I was never taught that or told about that [residential schools]. Even my adopted parents, they didn’t really know about that either and they were studying, researching and learning about it with me and we were all just shocked that this really did happen and we really did not know anything about it. It was swept under the rug for a very long time.”

Donna The Strange is an Anishinaabe artist based in La Ronge, 200 kilometres north of Saskatoon. (Donna The Strange)

“Back in 2010 was when I first taught myself to paint, and it wasn’t until 2015 when I first discovered the Anishinaabe woodland style, and me pursuing that was definitely my way of going to my culture and learning about it.”

Donna The Strange paints in the traditional woodland style. She added orange to the centre of every flower to represent the potential burial sites of residential school children being found. (Donna The Strange)

“[Reconciliation is] about how we treat each other as human beings and the kind of relationships and communities we need to build for the future.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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